1902 Encyclopedia > English Language > Introduction

English Language
(Part 1)

English Language - Introduction

In its widest sense, the name is now conveniently used to comprehend the language of the English people from their settlement in Britain to the present day, the various stages through which it has passed being distinguished as Old Middle, and New or Modern English. In works yet recent, and even in some still current, the name English is confined to the third, or at most extended to the second and third of these stages, since the language assumed in the main the vocabulary and grammatical forms which it now presents, the oldest or inflected stage being treated as a separate language, under the title of Anglo-Saxon, while the transition period which connects the two has been called Semi-Saxon. This view had the justification that, looked upon by themselves, either as vehicles of thought or as objects of study and analysis, Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, and Modern English are, for all practice ends, distinct languages,—as much so, for example, as Latin and Spanish. No amount of familiarity with Modern English, including its local dialects, would enable the student to read Anglo-Saxon, three-fourths of the vocabulary of which have perished and been reconstructed within 800 years; [Footnote 390-1] nor would a knowledge even of these lost words give him the power, wince the grammatical system, alike in accidence and syntax, would be entirely strange to him. Indeed, it is probable that a modern Englishman would acquire the power of reading and writing French in less time than it would cost him to attain to the same proficiency in Old English; so that if the test of distinct languages be their degree of practical difference from each other, it cannot be denied that "Anglo-Saxon" is a distinct language from Modern English. But when we view the subject historically, recognizing the fact that living speech is subject to continuous change in certain definite directions, determined by the constitution and circumstances of mankind, as an evolution or development of which we can trace the steps, and that, owing to the abundance of written materials, this evolution appears so gradual in English that we can nowhere draw distinct lines separating its successive stages, we recognize-these stages as merely temporary phases of an individual whole, and speak of the English language as used alike by Cynewulf and by Tennyson,j just as we include alike King Alfred and Mr Bright as members of the English race. [Footnote 390-2] It must not be forgotten, however, that in this wide sense the English language included, not only the literary or courtly forms of speech used at successive periods, but also the popular and, it may be, altogether unwritten dialects that exist by their side. Only on this basis, indeed, can we speak of Old, Middle, and Modern English as the same language, since in actual fact the precise dialect which is now the cultivated language, or "English" par excellence, is not the descendant of that dialect which was the cultivated language or English of Alfred, but of a sister dialect then sunk in obscurity,—even as the direct descendant of Alfred’s "Englisc" is now to be found in the neglected and non-literary rustic speech of Wiltshire and Somersetshire. Causes which, linguistically considered, are external and accidental, have shifted the political and intellectual centre of England, and along with it transferred literary and courtly patronage from one forms of English to another; if the centre of influence had happened to be fixed at York or on the banks of the Forth, both would probably have been neglected for a third.

The English language, thus defined, is not "native" to Britain, that is, it was not found here at the dawn of history, but was introduced by foreign immigrants at a date many centuries later. At the Roman Conquest of the island, the languages spoken by the natives belonged all (so far as is known) to the Celtic branch of the Aryan family, modern forms of which still survive in Wales, Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, Isle of Man, and Brittany, while one has quite recently become extinct in Cornwall. Dialects allied to Welsh and Cornish were apparently spoken over the greater part of Britain, as far north as the Firths of Forth and Clyde; beyond these estuaries and in the isles to the west, including Ireland and Man, dialect of the Picts in the east of Scotland, according to recent inquiries, presented characteristics uniting the British or Cymric with the Gaelic division. [Footnote 390-3] The long occupation of South Britain by the Romans (43-409 A.D.)—a period, it must not be forgotten, equal to that form the close of the Middle Ages to the present day, or to the whole duration of Modern English—familiarized the provincial inhabitant with Latin, which was probably the ordinary speech of the towns. Gildas, writing nearly a century and a half after the renunciation of Honorius, addressed the British princes in that language; [Footnote 391-1] and the linguistic of Britain might have been not different from that of Gaul, Spain, and the other provinces of the Western Empire, where a rustic Latin giving birth to a neo-Latinic language finally superseded the native one except in remote and mountainous districts, [Footnote 391-2] when the course of events was entirely changed by the Teutonic conquest of the 5th and 6th centuries.

The Angles, Saxons, and their allies belonged to the Teutonic or Gothic branch of the Aryan family, represented in modern times not only by the English and their colonies, but by the populations of Germany, Holland, Denmark, the Scandinavian peninsula, and found at the dawn of history located between and about the estuaries and lower courses of the Rhine and the Weser, and the adjacent coasts and isles. For more than 1000 years the Teutonic or Gothic stock has been divided into the three branches of the Low German, High German, and Scandinavian, of which the former represents the original stock, the two others being offshots to the south and north respectively. To it also belonged the Moeso-Gothic, the tongue of certain Germans who, passing down the Danube, invaded the borders of the empire, and obtained settlements in the province of Moesia, where their language was committed to writing in the 4th century; its literary remains are of peculiar value as the oldest specimens, by several centuries, of Teutonic speech. To the Low German division also belonged the dialects of the invaders of Britain. As we have no specimens of the language of these tribes for nearly three centuries after their settlement in this island, we cannot tell to what they agreed with, and differed from, each other; nor can we be sure whether the differences actually found at a later period, when we have opportunity of comparison, between northern and southern English, were due to original diversity, or to subsequent differentiation. However, as the dialectal differences afterwards discernible correspond in the main to the areas historically assigned to Angles and Saxons respectively, it may be assumed that there was some difference of dialect to begin with, that of the Saxons being more closely allied to the Old Saxon of the Continent, of which Dutch is probably the nearest living representative, and the Angle dialect having more affinity with the Frisian, and through that with the Scandinavian. At the present day the most English or Angli-form dialects of the Continent are those of the North Frisian islands of Amrum and Sylt, on the west coast of Schleswig It is well known that the greater part of the ancient Friesland has been swept away by the encroachment of the North Sea, and disjecta membra of the Frisian race, pressed by the sea in front and encroaching nationalities behind, are found only in isolated fragments from the Zuyder Zee to the coasts of Denmark. Of the Geátas, Eótas, or "Jutas," who, according to Baeda, formed the third tribe along with the Angles and Saxons, it is difficult to speak linguistically. In the opinion of the present writer, the speech of kent has ever been a typically southern or "Saxon" one, and at the present day its popular dialect is identical with that of Sussex, one of the old Saxon kingdoms ; that of the Isle of Wight differs in no respect from that of Hampshire, nor does it show any special connection with that of Kent. Mr Henry Sweet has, however, shown [Footnote 391-3] that Kentish as early as the 8th century differed from West-Saxon in one or two points of vowel pronunciation, and that the distinction was maintained as late as the 14th : though it cannot be said to have therein approached more closely to the northern dialect, which ought to have been the case had Baeda’s "Geátas" been Jutlanders.

As it was amongst the Angel-cynn or Engle of Northumbria that literary culture first flourished, and an Angle or Englisc dialect was the first to be used for vernacular literature,[Footnote 391-4] Englisc came eventually to be a general name for all forms of the vernacular as opposed to Latin, &c. ; and even when the West-Saxon of Alfred became in its turn the literary or classical form of speech, it was still called English. or English. The origin of the name of name Anglo-Saxon is disputed, some maintaining very positively that it means is disputed, some maintaining very positively that it means a union of Angles and Saxons, other (with better foundation) that it meant English Saxons, or Saxons, or Saxons of England, as distinguished from Saxons of the Continent. Its modern use is mainly due to the little band of scholar who in the 16th and 17th centuries turned their attention to the long forgotten language of Alfred and Alfred and Aelfric which, as it differed so utterly from the English of their own day, they found it themselves by those who spoke it. [Footnote 391-5] To them "Anglo-Saxon" and "English" were separated by a gulf which it was reserved for later scholars to bridge across, and show the historical continuity of the English of all ages.

As already hinted, the English language, in the wide sense, presents three main stages of development—Old, Middle and Modern—distinguished by their inflexional characteristics. The latter can be best summarized in the words of Mr Henry Sweet, in his History of English Sounds. [Footnote 391-6] "Old English is the period of full inflexions (name, gifan, caru), Middle English of livelled inflexions (naame, given, caare), and Modern English of lost inflexions name, give, care = nam, giv, car). Whe have besides two periods of transition, one in which nama and name exist side by side, and another in which final e[with other endings] is beginning to drop." By lost inflexions it is meant that only very few remain, and these mostly non-syllabic. as the –s in stones the –ed in loved, the –r in their, as contrasted with the Old English stán-as, luf-od-e and luf-od-on, pá-ra. Each of these periods may also be divided into two—an early and a late ; but from the want of materials this division may be waived in regard to the first. We have thus the following divisions, with the approximate dates, which, however, varied considerably for different dialects and parts of the country :—

Old English or Anglo-Saxon……………………………………………. to 1100
Transition Old English, or "Semi-Saxon ….…………….……….1100 to 1200
Early Middle English, or "Early English, or "Early English …..1200 to 1300
Late Middle English………………………………………………..1300 to 1400
Transition Middle English…………………………………………1400 to 1485
Early Modern English, "Tudor English"…………………………1485 to 1611
Modern English……………………………………………………..1611 onward.

Many writers carry the Transition Old English down to 1250, Early Middle English thence to 1350, and Late Middle English 1350 to 1485, absorbing the Second Transition period. But the division given above, which was, I believe, first proposed by Mr Sweet, represents better the development of the language.


390-1 A careful examination of several letters of Bosworth’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary gives in 2000 words (including derivatives and compounds, but excluding orthographical, variants) 535 which still exist as modern English words.

390-2 The practical convenience of having one name for what was the same thing in various stages of development is not affected by the probability that (Mr Freeman notwithstanding) Engle and Englisc were, at an early period, not applied to the whole of our Teutonic ancestors in Britain, but only to a part of them. The dialects of Engle and Seaxan were alike old forms of what was afterwards English speech, and so, viewed in relation to it, Old English, whatever their contemporary names might be.

390-3 As to the place of the Pictish, see Dr W. F. Skene’s Four Ancient Books of Wales, I. vii., viii. Prof Rhys says "the Picts, Mr Skene notwithstanding, were probably Kymric rather than Goidelic"—Welsh Philology, p. 19.

391-1 The works of Gildas in the original Latin were edited by Mr Stevenson for the the English Historical Society. There is an English translation in Six Old English Chronicles in Bohn’s Antiquarian Library.

391-2 As to the continued existence of Latin in Britain, see further in Rhy’s Lectures on Welsh Philology, p.226-7.

391-3 "Dialects and Prehistoric Forms of English," Transactions of the Philosophical Society for 1875-6, p. 543.

391-4 See also Earle’s Philosophy of the English Tongue, p. 25.

391-5 Aethelstan in 934 calls himself in a charter "Ongol-Saxna cyning and Brytaenwalda eallaes thyses iglands;" Eadred in 955 is "Angulseaxna cyning and cásere totius Britanniae," and the name is of frequent occurrence in Latin documents. These facts ought to be remembered in the interest of the scholars of the 17th century, who have been blamed for the use of the term Anglo-Saxon, as if they had invented it. By "Anglo-Saxon" language they meant the language of the people who sometimes at least called themselves "Anglo-Saxons." Even now the name is practically useful, when are dealing with the subject per se, as is Old English, on the other hand, when we are treating it historically or in connexion with English as a whole.

391-6 Transactions of the Philological Society. 1873-4. p. 620.

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